China has long been a family-run country. It has also been, and still is, primarily a rural nation. These two institutions, the family and the farm, are the core of China. Both the family and a rural environment are collectivist in nature. They depend on working together and aiming for harmony. When Mao Ze Dong came into power, he reinforced the collectivist view by eliminating landowners and individualists and sending nearly everyone to work in collectivist communes. Thus, China has been more collectivist than individualist in both its ancient and modern history.
To be fair, there are many leaders in China today who believe that the days of collectivism in China will soon be gone. When I was writing my book, Business Leadership in China: How to Blend Western Best Practice with Chinese Wisdom, some of the Chinese experts I interviewed said that they believed that China was quickly losing its collectivist mindset and moving to individualism, especially among the ba ling hou. There are several reasons for this. One is that the “one-child-policy,” especially in the cities, has left us with many younger citizens who have been raised to believe that they hold a special place in the world. For sure, this kind of upbringing leads to individualism over collectivism.
In business however, there are still many examples of collectivist thinking. A famous case was at Lenovo when the Chinese and American partners began to work together. Generally, the Chinese looked towards the team as the reason for the company’s success. The Americans however, were trying to identify individual high performers. While I believe these differences eventually got worked out, the starting point was quite different for the two cultures.
So even if it is just a matter of time before China can be declared more individualist than collectivist, the fact remains that China today is more collectivist than individualist. For Westerners coming to lead in China, one needs to accommodate this reality. Standing out, as one tries in the West, will be hammered down in China.
In my own observation in China, while the prediction that collectivism is changing to individualism is valid, there are still many signs of collectivism that you would not see in the West. The vast size of China’s population compared to nearly anywhere else in the world requires a collectivist mentality just to get along. Individualists could not crowd onto busses the way they do in Beijing. Individualists could not travel in crowded subway cars the way they do in Shanghai. Sure, Chinese people complain about these things (and perhaps those complaints are a sign of the transition to individualism), but they tolerate it. Westerners have a very difficult time with these realities. When forced, they too comply, but generally handle it less well than their Chinese colleagues.
When I first arrived in China I was taken to a restaurant in China where, after dinner, musical entertainment was offered. People danced in a large group on the tables. There were no apparent dance partners, as you would most often find in the West. Rather, everyone danced as part of the group, and seemed to both fit into, and get lost in, the collective.
So, even though we may be moving away from a collectivist mindset in China, there are still many remnants of this in people’s attitudes, especially among the older citizens. In business leadership, this has strong implications.
Dealing With the Individualist-Collectivist Dichotomy in China
The focus on the team over the individual is an important difference from the West. A lesson to HR is to make sure that the focus is on the team as well as on specific individuals. Westerners also need to be reminded to give credit to the team rather than to themselves, as many Chinese claim Westerners are quick to do. In the book, China CEO, the authors quote Jun Tung, then President of Microsoft China. To paraphrase, he said that, as a leader in China, if you present yourself humbly, “as part of the team,” you establish the type of support you need to get the job done. If you follow a typical Western approach, where the leader is supreme, you are more likely to fail.
In a collectivist society, a company becomes like a family. That is, the employee becomes a part of something very important. He or she will be loyal to that entity and expects the same in return. Of course, this is less true in China today than during the time of the “iron rice bowl” where everyone who joined a company saw it as a mutually beneficial life-long event. But again, although this concept may no longer ring true in all companies in China, the remnants of the idea are still there, especially among the older workers. The lesson to HR and to the company’s leaders, be they Western or Chinese, is to understand and respect the history of this collectivist employer-employee relationship. You cannot go wrong if you overplay this idea. You only stand to fail if you underplay it.